Saturday, December 14, 2013

Big River's Daughter: Historical Fantasy by Bobbi Miller

Today on the blog I'm delighted to welcome Bobbi Miller, talking about her acclaimed historical fantasy, BIG RIVER'S DAUGHTER. I'm a total sucker for historical fantasy, so take a look at this wonderful tale...

Raised by her pirate father on a Mississippi keeler, River is a half-feral river rat and proud of it. When her powerful father disappears in the great earthquake of 1811, she is on the run from buccaneers, including Jean Laffite, who hope to claim her father's territory and his buried treasure. But the ruthless rivals do not count on getting a run for their money from a plucky slip of a girl determined to find her place in the new order.

Hi Bobbi! First, can you tell us about how you came to write this particular tale?

“This here story is all true, as near as I can recollect. It ain’t a prettified story. Life as a river rat is stomping hard, and don’t I know it. It’s life wild and woolly, a real rough and tumble. But like Da said, life on the river is full of possible imaginations. And we river rats, we aim to see it through in our own way. That’s the honest truth of it.”  

So says River Fillian as she begins to tell her story in my book, Big River’s Daughter. River’s story is an historical American fantasy, a blend of the tall tale tradition that captures so much of the American identity, and a unique form of fantasy. I have long been a student of  tall tales, epitomized in the exploits of Annie Christmas and Mike Fink -- two important characters in River’s life. In true rough and tumble fashion, the heroes and heroines of tall tales mocked and defied convention. Even their language was as wild and unabashed as the circumstance and landscape that created these characters. And that describes my character, River.

I’m also an avid student of American history. David McCullough, two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, wrote, “We are raising a generation of young Americans who are by and large historically illiterate…We have to know who we were if we’re to know who we are and where we’re headed…If you don’t care about it –if you’ve inherited some great fortune, you don’t even know that it’s a great work of art and you’re not interested in it – you’re going to lose it…”  History is literature, McCullough says. And our history is full of amazing stories.

The setting of my book was an extraordinary time in American history. We were embroiled in the War of 1812. While the War of Independence set us free of British rule, the War of 1812 ultimately defined us as a force in world power. My story is  also grounded in many historical personalities, such as the Pirates Laffites, as well as events. In December 1811, a series of earthquakes shook the Mississippi  River basin. Three of these earthquakes would have measured at magnitude of 8.0 on the modern-day Richter scale. Six others would have measured between 7.0 and 7.5. The quakes were felt as far away as Canada. It shook so hard, it forced the Mississippi River to run backwards, changing the very landscape. It also sets into motion River’s story.

Congratulations on being nominated for the Amelia Bloomer list. FAITHFUL was a nominee as well. Please talk about what that means for you, and for your novel.

What an honor this is! The Amelia Bloomer Project is an annual annotated book list in association with American Library Association, and features “well-written and well-illustrated books that empower girls by providing role models of strong, capable, creative women.”  These personalities and characters were my inspirations when I was a young reader.  Isn’t that the goal of every writer to inspire a young reader to become more than they imagined themselves possible? The characters in these books, both real and imagined, defied the social convention of their day –past and present – to become fully realized, astonishing individuals doing great things.
Another honor is being listed at the site, A Mighty Girl, with its tag line, “The world's largest collection of books, toys and movies for smart, confident, and courageous girl.” And you can see this at:

I know that you believe that historically accurate language use is especially important to you (as it is to me) so please tell readers how you went about researching and using language.

With my studies in folklore, I have long studied the rhythms and patterns in speech and how they influence the storytelling process.  I also listened to storytellers tell their stories, too,  and the best ones – like Eric Kimmel, Rafe Martin and Ashley Bryan – enrapture the audience.  Theirs is the process of storytelling as old as human communication. We are homo narratus, story animals, suggests Kendall Haven (Story Proof: The Science Behind the Startling Power of Story, 2007). We have told our stories for over 100,000 years. Not every culture has developed codified laws or written language, but every culture in the history of the world has created myths, legends, fables, and folk tales.
To capture the language in River’s story, I also studied many readings, like Davy
Crockett’s Almanacs (1835 – 1856), which included much of the language used by storytellers of that day.  Of course, these were the days before the dictionary and so people spelled words according to how they pronounced the. And deferent pronouncements produced different spellings.  And one cannot write about the Mississippi River without reading Mark Twain. I read most, if not all, of his books, annotating, deciphering, pulling apart words and sentences. Of course, whenever river men, like the western mountain men, gathered, they told their tall tales. They used songs and signals to call to each other. One of my favorites was from Mark Twain, which goes, “Who-op!” It mean’s, “I’m here! Look at me!” 

What are you working on now?

My next book is Girls of Gettysburg, due from Holiday House in Fall 2014.  This book tells of the battle of Gettysburg using three different perspectives: a young woman disguised as a Confederate soldier; the young daughter of a free man and farmer; and the daughter of the town butcher, and the harrowing three days in which Gettysburg explodes and the lives of these three young girls intersect in unexpected ways.  The inspiration came from finding an old newspaper clip dating from that time, in which a union general noted the presence of a fallen Confederate soldier, a girl, at the bottom of his report. His words “one female (private) in rebel uniform” became her epitaph.  Her story remained a mystery. And to get the feel of the landscape, I not only walked the length of the Gettysburg  battle several times over three trips to the area, I visited the reenactors, and made a pest of myself in the bookstores.

But that's what it means to me to write historical fiction: doing everything I can to bring that historical moment alive.

For more information about the historical American Fantasy and tall tale characters in my book, please see my article, Big River’s Daughter, at:

For more information about why historical fiction is important, and how teachers might use them in their classrooms, see A Conversation of Many: Why is Historical Fiction Important?

For a wonderful educator’s guide on how to use Big River’s Daughter in the classroom, see:

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